Long read: Anatomy of a disaster
Documents released on Thursday show the swift unravelling of Derek Handley's appointment as the Government's Chief Technology Officer, Thomas Coughlan reports.
Sometime in the morning of August 23 Derek Handley received a disquieting text.
“Hi Derek, it’s Andrew Campbell here from Jacinda Ardern’s office. I’m her chief press secretary. Could you please call me at your earliest convenience as there is a matter I need to discuss with you urgently,” it said.
Handley replied that he was in a board meeting and asked if the matter could wait “a few hours”.
“Yes, just as soon as possible please,” Campbell replied.
At 1.57pm, Handley asked if Campbell still wanted to talk. Campbell wasted no time, telling Handley he’d “call in 5”.
When the pair eventually spoke, Campbell informed Handley that Clare Curran, the minister who had appointed him New Zealand’s chief technology officer, was in serious trouble and that his own name would soon enter the media coverage.
It’s not clear if this was the first Handley had heard of Curran’s troubles, but documents proactively released on Thursday make it appear likely.
Curran had incorrectly responded to a written question from National MP Brett Hudson, asking about a meeting with Handley. She initially failed to report that she met with Handley in her Beehive Office on February 27 to discuss the CTO role. The meeting was also missing from her diary. Coming clean required Handley to help collate communications with Curran for later release.
Documents say “Handley was given the opportunity to provide feedback on the communications that related to him”.
A sharp change in mood
The communication probably came as a shock to Handley. Just two days earlier, on August 21 Curran’s staff had been busy getting feedback on a guest list for the event at which he would be announced as New Zealand’s first government-appointed Chief Technology Officer.
The Prime Minister would be there, as would high flyers from the tech and IT sector.
An email from Gay Cavill, Curran’s press secretary noted Handley had been giving advice on the guest list through his public relations staff.
He agreed “media [are] the priority,” but he was keen to have “ a mix of invited guests who represent the whole of society and not just the tech/IT sector”.
Handley suggested other guests whose names have been redacted.
Two hours later, at 1.24, Curran sent Handley a jovial email with the subject line “some ideas to get started on workplan”. It included links to Labour policy documents pertaining to its “future of work” programme, which looked at how automation might affect the workplace.
Curran’s mood was upbeat, she joked the links were “light reading for the plane :)”.
Handley was upbeat too. “Great! Thanks for sharing,” he replied. “Let me know if you want to chat tomorrow or whenever”.
But it looks like Curran and Handley did not message again and his next communication with the Government was of a far different tenor.
“I’m going to go to bed soon to get the night over with!”
At 11pm on August 23, Campbell texted Handley again:
“Hi Derek, just tried to call to discuss release. Am around for another 10-15 mins at work, but need to head home soon. Let me know if you can talk”.
An hour later, Handley replied:
“Hey Andrew, I’m going to go to bed soon to get the night over with! Would love to chat but 100% agree my response/position with you. Also one other thing to ask. Let me know when works for 10 min chat. DH”.
It appears Handley asked for certain messages to be kept out of the information release, which Campbell agreed to.
The situation worsened the next morning. At 8.34, Clare Curran sent a simple email to the Prime Minister. It was just one line:
“I hereby tender my resignation as Minister for Government Digital Services and from my role as Associate Minister of State Services (Open Government).”
Curran was not the only person to lose her job - her ejection from Cabinet cost Cavill and other staff their jobs as well.
Curran’s excruciating departure from her ministerial responsibilities, which played out over two weeks until she finally resigned from her remaining portfolios on September 7, capped off a troubled recruiting process for the CTO role.
Both National and Labour went into last year’s election promising to appoint a Government CTO. The National Business Review reported that luminaries like Xero founder Rod Drury had lobbied both parties to create the position. Curran took ownership of the role — she contacted NBR to correct the article and note that her support for the role pre-dated Drury’s lobbying.
Cabinet signed off on the role in December and recruitment began on December 19, with applications closing on 15 January. There were 61 applicants, soon whittled down to 18 of interest.
Curran and a panel then came up for a shortlist of three candidates, and eventually a preferred candidate was found.
On February 8, Curran contacted Ardern via messaging service whatsapp.
“Sooo. After an extensive interview process and some extra phone calls to test our conclusions the CTO panel of myself, Andrew Kibblewhite and [redacted] unanimously recommend [redacted] as our preferred candidate. Could I ring tomorrow to give more detail,” Curran said.
“Sure!” Ardern replied.
It is not clear what happened next, but it appears Curran’s preferred candidate did not survive the phone call with Ardern.
On February 12, Curran’s office released a statement saying none of the candidates were successful and she was “widening” the search and changing the role.
Curran got back in touch with Ardern on February 13.
“Fallout from CTO non appointment seems minimal to date. Helped by some supportive tweets from Michelle Dickinson and the 3 candidates being gracious,” she said.
In parallel to the the troubled CTO recruitment, Handley had been in touch with members of the Government repeatedly offering his services.
Handley met with a senior Labour Party official, whom stuff.co.nz reported to be president Nigel Haworth. This contact led to a phone call from the Prime Minister's acting chief of staff Gordon Jon Thompson where Handley again offered his services.
In November, Handley reached out to Arden herself, sending her a message:
“Rt Hon J! I’m in Auckland next week for two days. Who is best to meet to explore how I can help or what role I could play in support of you? D”
The message was followed by a string of emojis, which have been withheld.
Ardern did not respond to the message, but Thompson contacted Handley on 22 December to discuss the ways he might support the Government, although the discussion did not include the CTO role, which had opened applications three days prior.
Handley appeared to have decided on applying for CTO between December and February.
Messages from his Twitter account to Clare Curran show he reached out on February 13, the day after Curran’s office announced it was reopening applications for the role.
“I’d be open to speaking about moving home for it, if it’s of interest to you to explore,” he wrote. “We need true vision and courage here”.
Curran accepted Handley’s offer. They arranged to meet on 27 February in the Beehive. After the meeting, they continued to correspond.
“I think I could really do it amazingly well… I have such unique and weird skills”
On April 23, Handley finally made contact with Ardern and repeated his offer — this time with mention to the CTO role which had re-opened for a second round of applications. Handley told Ardern he was excited to move home to New Zealand.
“Will cry on landing. This much I know. Almost crying writing this text! We can’t wait to come home,” he said. His message was followed by emojis depicting a house, river, trees, and a family.
Ardern sent Handley her email, and Handley responded on Jun 7, roughly three weeks after the birth of Ardern’s child with on email titled “Ideas x Baby x CTO”.
He began on a personal note.
“So close to the baby arriving! Then….POP. It’ll be out before you know it :-) So exciting,” he wrote, before detailing his ambition for the CTO role, which is organised into five bullet points.
The message shows Handley apparently preoccupied with the Davos Summit, an annual gathering of world leaders and financiers at an exclusive Swiss ski resort, which takes place each January.
He wants to design an “impactful and surprising Davos presence,” but also suggests trying to create a Davos-style gathering in New Zealand.
“New Zealand could design a new model for a Davos-type global collective to shape/steer thinking for our generation,” he said.
He told Ardern he had already applied for the role.
“I genuinely believe the most service I could be to you and New Zealand is actually in that role. I think I could really do it amazingly well,” he wrote.
“I have such unique and weird skills...”.
But Ardern did not reply to Handley’s email — a sweep of her emails conducted by staff in September revealed she didn’t even open it.
Back in the Beehive
Emails from applicants suggest the second attempt at recruiting a chief technology officer was going the way of the first.
One applicant asked for their “non-traditional and late application to be excused” as it was “a reflection of the grassroots Marae-based strategy” they would implement.
Another email, possibly from the same candidate, shows some candidates had their vision set lower than the far-reaching, long-sighted role outlined in the CTO terms of reference.
“Interestingly Prime Minister Arden sent me a Linkedin connection request a few days ago. By her example she is showing us that these technologies can impact quality of life at every level, from political to personal, and local to international”.
And Handley was not the only candidate who reached out to Curran personally. One candidate makes mention of a phone conversation with Curran.
Their application is brief:
“Thanks for your time on the phone. I would the chance to apply for this role as a New Zealander,” it said.
Handley was eventually appointed CTO in August, after being chosen from a shortlist of eight candidates.
On July 31, Curran sent Ardern a message saying she had chosen Handley. Curran should have included the note in Ardern’s bag of evening briefings, but she missed the deadline by 23 minutes.
“Ok. You could give papers to Andrew Campbell. I will see him Thursday morning,” was Ardern’s response.
Handley was notified, and verbally agreed to take the job, although no contract was signed. On August 20, Cabinet approved his appointment, subject to the successful resolution of conflicts of interests.
Curran and Handley communicated regularly throughout August. On August 8, she sent Handley two links, one about rankings of Governments’ digital strategies, the other a list of 100 most influential people in digital government.
She had been included on the list and her press team had unsuccessfully attempted to have New Zealand media run a story on Curran’s inclusion.
If she had intended to humblebrag to Handley, it went unnoticed. He said he’d seen the list of people, but made no mention of Curran’s place on it.
His mind may have been on other things, on August 11 he sent a long email setting out his ambitions for the role. He suggests he may want to hire more staff than the two dedicated staff he had been promised.
“The original Cabinet paper notes two dedicated staff members from GDCO and MBIE is this still the thinking?” he asked.
“Would love to chat more about this with you and whoever else would be involved in resourcing. How would we handle external hires/contractors/support if deemed best?
“I have an idea of the type of team I think would be ideal and imagine it to be a mix of internal and external people - as well as some international thinkers”.
Curran responded saying she would have “more substantial things to say next week” regarding Handley’s resourcing. She tells him to be mindful that his team will be lending their “goodwill” to his office — perhaps an indication that Handley should keep his ambitions in check. We don't know if he was disappointed, but two staff wouldn't go far if your ambition was to create an antipodean Davos.
They discuss Handley’s unveiling to the media and a communications strategy that will paint him as a successful Kiwi returning home.
“The whole Kiwis come home thing is really important as a message for this govt,” Curran said.
But days later Handley was discussing a different communications strategy — and not with Curran, who had been stripped of her Ministerial responsibilities, but with the Prime Minister’s office.
Handley’s name did enter the media — and he was not pleased. On August 30 he sent Andrew Campbell another message, “Do you have a min to chat? I could use some advice…”
The pair later spoke. In the week since Handley’s connection to Curran and the CTO role had been revealed, several commentators had questioned his suitability for the role. It was not publicly known that Handley was the successful candidate, only that he was still in the running for the position.
A particularly excoriating article had appeared the previous day on The Spinoff. It collected opinions, some anonymous, from the tech sector which cast serious doubt on Handley’s suitability.
“I’m pretty confident that he would take much more from the job than he would contribute. And that’s not what we need,” wrote one anonymous “tech luminary”.
But Handley would not have the job for much longer. On 10 September, Handley made contact with Chris Hipkins who had taken over Curran’s open government responsibilities. Hipkins messaged he wanted to talk “regarding the CTO role”.
At some point in the next three days, Handley was told the role would be reworked and his offer rescinded. He would receive $107,000 in compensation.
In spite of the apparently urgent need to meet the fast-moving challenges of the digital world, New Zealanders will have to wait until November before even finding out what the role looks like. Megan Woods said she would take a “re-scoped” version of the role to Cabinet in November, nearly a year after the Government first started recruiting for the role.